- Bēl is not Baˤl (most of the time)
- Bēl or Bīl in Syriac and Arabic
- Bil in Mandaic
- The names Bēl and Marduk
- Marduk in Akkadian astrology
- Marduk in ritual and ancient scholarship
- Asalluḫi, Tutu, and other Sumerian names of Marduk
1 Bēl is not Baˤl (most of the time)
Throughout this article, I will often be referring to Marduk as Bēl, a byname that eventually replaced the proper name of the god. Bēl means ‘Lord’, and derives from the Akkadian common noun bēlu, ‘lord’. Bēlu, in turn, is from proto-Semitic *baʕl-. In Canaanite (including Hebrew and Phoenician), the same proto-Semitic root produced the common noun baˤlu, ‘lord’, and hence the divine name Baˤlu, ‘Lord’, also spelled Baal in English.
Despite the similar sound, common origin, and shared base meaning, and despite the fact that both names are translated as Zeus in Greek, they must not be confused. In the Aramaic language, the names are reliably spelled and pronounced differently: Bēl or Bīl (byl) vs. Baˤl (bʕl). There are only a few idiosyncratic cases in which the two are conflated.
(On the other hand, it is vital not to treat Marduk and Bēl as if the names referred to different deities.)
2 Bēl or Bīl in Syriac and Arabic
In the 10th century CE, Syriac lexicographer Bar Bahlul explained the name ‘Bēl’ (syr. ܒܝܠ byl) as follows: “Bēl is Zeus (syr. zws) = al-Muštarī (ar. ʔl-mštry).” Indeed, the Syriac language uses all three names – the Arabic Muštarī, the Greek Zeus, and the Akkadian Bēl – to refer to the planet we call Jupiter in English. Bar Bahlul was writing under Islamic rule, so the presence of the Arabic term is unremarkable; the Greek word can be explained by the centuries of Greek and Roman rule prior the Islamic conquests. But whence ‘Bēl’?
Akkadian was the language of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires centered on northern and southern Mesopotamia (more or less modern Iraq), respectively. But in the 1st millennium BCE, Akkadian was gradually replaced by Aramaic, the language of the Aramaeans to their West, which also spread through Canaan (Palestine), replacing the native Hebrew and Phoenician dialects.
Naturally, the language took on local features in different areas, and in Syriac, the form of Aramaic used in northern Mesopotamia, this included most of the names of “the seven wanderers (=planets), Šemšā (Sun), Sehrā (Moon), Kēwān (Saturn), Bīl (Jupiter), Nerīg (Mars), Belthī (Venus), and Nabū (Mercury).” Only the first two, the words for Sun and Moon, are native to the Aramaic language; the other five were what linguists call substrate, elements of the previously spoken language retained after the shift to Aramaic. The Greek and Arabic terms, on the other hand, are superstrate: elements superadded to an already established language.
The text just quoted is the Book of the Cause of Causes (specifically p. 70 of the German translation [off-site link]), a comprehensive work of Christian theology, which notes that people called these planets “gods, and built images and statues for them, with prayers and intercessions.” Indeed, the planets were among the most revered gods of Mesopotamian polytheism throughout the 1st millennia BCE and CE. Hence, Syriac Christians knew them not only as the gods whom their forebears in late antiquity had opposed in anti-pagan polemics, but also from a number of references (e.g., to Bēl and Nabū) in the Hebrew Bible, written many centuries earlier.
In the Book of the Cause of Causes, there are several passages discussing the planets, some of which I will discuss here. In book 5, chapter 5 (pp. 254–256 of the German translation), the author lists ten spheres between the Earth and the waters that encompass the heavens. “That great, unlimited sea signifies the highest, unlimited and infinite Deity” and “represents and depicts the highness, loftiness and infinitude of the eternal Being.” (God himself, of course, is beyond this ordering.) The ten spheres are described as follows, from top to bottom:
- Firmament of the Moon
- Sphere of Sehrā (Moon)
- Sphere of Hermes, Nabū or Autarad [= Mercury]
- Sphere of Belathi, Aphrodite or Zuharch [= Venus]
- Firmament of the Sun
- Sphere of the Sun (Šemšā)
- Sphere of Nerig, Ares or Marrikh [= Mars]
- Sphere of Bel, Zeus or Mushthari [= Jupiter]
- Firmament of Kronos
- Sphere of Kronos [= Saturn]
- Eighth sphere, 1120 bright stars.
- Ninth sphere, countless higher stars.
- Above the Firmaments
- Tenth sphere, of the Zodiac Signs, and an infinite number of obscure and invisible stars, such as the Milky Way.
[Book of the Cause of Causes, p. 254ff > look at the Syriac for exact transliterations]
[Book of the Cause of Causes, p. 271-276, p. 282-285, p. 348ff]
[Book of Medicines p. 552f, also 566f, 606!, 619f]
[Harran; Ibn Wahshiyyah?]
[? continuation of the Bar Bahlul entry: ܘܐܦ ܐܢܟܐ ܩ̇ܪܝܢ ܠܗ ܦܠܚܝ̈ ܐܘܡܢܘܬܐ المشتري]
[Syriac version of Ahiqar?]
(that Syriac Christian about messiah?)
3 Bil in Mandaic
Mandaic, so called because for many centuries it has been used only by the Mandaean ethno-religious community, is a form of Aramaic used in southern Mesopotamia. Compared to Syriac, it retains significantly more (and sometimes simply different) Akkadian vocabulary. Thus, the Sun is called Šamiš (akk. Šamaš), and the Moon both Sera (syr. Sehrā) and Sin (akk. Sîn). Saturn (Kiwan), Jupiter (Bil), Mars (Nirigh) and Mercury (Enwo) have the same names as in Syriac, except that pronunciation has diverged over time. Venus, however, is called Liwet, from Akkadian Dilbat (a technical term for the planet in Akkadian astronomy). This much just for context.
Since not all Mandaic-language texts are strictly Mandaean, and the Mandaean religion itself has had a complex intellectual history, Bil does not appear as a consistent figure in these sources.
[Mandaic dictionary; Book of Zodiac; Ginza; ancient and modern magic; modern practice; etc.]
4 The names Bēl and Marduk
In section 1, I have already briefly addressed the origin and meaning of the name ‘Bēl’. But as we move backward in time from Aramaic to Akkadian sources, more details become relevant.
5 Marduk in Akkadian astrology
6 Marduk in ritual and ancient scholarship
7 Sumerian names of Marduk